The best action movies of 2021

It was a year in which many films were put on the back burner ⏤ not by choice, but due to circumstance. Some had release dates pushed back due to theaters remaining shut while others suffered massive production delays. The film industry was one of many affected by the mass disruption of COVID-19, and also one of the most visible. 

To say that most films underachieved in a year when movie theaters were shut, premieres took place online, and much of the world was subject to pandemic restrictions is an understatement. But action movies were made to come out fighting. After all, there were dictators to overthrow, innocents to save, and Supermen to resurrect.

Whether the film was an unknown property or the latest installment in the Marvel juggernaut, another way to look at the disruption of 2021 was that action movies were released faster and to bigger audiences. It was the year that titans clashed, superheroes re-teamed against the odds, and women led action movies like never before. We’re thankful ⏤ and quite frankly lucky ⏤ that we even had 10 films to include on our ranking of best action flicks of 2021. Here they are, in no particular order.

Gunpowder Milkshake

Here’s a female-led action movie that packs a punch. Karen Gillan plays a hitwoman who has to team up with assassins known as the Librarians to rescue an abducted girl. The killer ensemble cast includes Carla Gugino, Angela Bassett, Michelle Yeoh, and Lena Headey as Gillan’s estranged mother. Gunpowder Milkshake is as bright, bloody, and brutal as its name suggests, although, considering the cast, it could have done a bit more. While the film is more its concept than its realization, it’s one you won’t soon forget.

Army of the Dead

Inspired by his rather good remake of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, Zack Snyder kicked off what Netflix hopes will be a major franchise with this high-concept zombie-crime-actioner. Dave Bautista is the only man you want to assemble a crack troop of bank robbers for a daring raid on Las Vegas packed with zombie hordes. Add in an impending nuke strike and this is a heist that will probably result in more than the City of Lost Wages. Prequel anime series Army of the Dead: Lost Vegas is due in 2022.

Space Sweepers

A Netflix Original, Space Sweepers is the South Korean sci-fi western we never knew we needed. An action-packed sci-fi saga packed with memorable characters, a compelling storyline, and astonishing visuals, it also teaches us a valuable lesson: If you come across a walking, talking robot bomb in the form of a girl, maybe think twice before you try to ransom her off. If this is Korea’s first space blockbuster, we can’t wait for the second. 

Zack Snyder’s Justice League

One of the most surprising film events of 2021, this four-hour epic improves upon the shambolic Justice League that reached movie theaters in 2017 in every way. Humor, action and hefty superhero myth-making combine in one of the year’s best actioners. Each hero gets a share of the story, and some previously under-explored heroes like Cyborg shine under the spotlight. Justice League’s existence is sweet sorrow for fans, of course. While it completes Zack Snyder’s DC trilogy, it’s very likely to be the end of the original DC Extended Universe. That final stand-off between the forces of Apokolips and the heroes of Earth deserved more.

Godzilla vs. Kong

This slugfest is why the Monsterverse exists, and somehow it exceeded expectations. Godzilla vs. Kong shows why this shared universe is the only one to come anywhere near the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). There’s humor, a fast-moving plot, a conspiracy subplot, and most importantly, epic smackdowns between the unstoppable titans of land and sea. Director Adam Wingard joined the franchise at just the right time, injecting character and artistry but letting the monster punches carry most of the weight. A film this good couldn’t end a franchise, but it’ll take an impressive titan to beat it.

Nobody

Bob Odenkirk worried us for a while in 2021. Fortunately, he bounced back to good health to bid farewell to Better Call Saul the way he wanted and hopefully make more movies like Nobody. It was the actioner that came out of nowhere. Odenkirk is Hutch Mansell, a suspiciously normal husband and father drawn back into his old life by a robbery and the mounting drudgery of his suburban existence. Unfortunately for the drug lord targeting him, he’s a former professional assassin. It’s a pacey actioner with a magnetic cast. The big question is: could Nobody be a part of the growing John Wick universe? 

The Suicide Squad

James Gunn leaped the divide to serve up this DC actioner and ended up producing his greatest comic book movie yet. The Squad’s deadly mission to Corto Maltese is such violent, ridiculous, and gratuitous fun it completely rewrites its pondering and strangely humorless prequel. There is just so much to love in this movie, although you barely get a chance to consider it as it jumps from one set-piece to another. Is the highlight the endless hilarious one-upmanship between John Cena’s Peacemaker and Idris Elba’s Bloodsport? Is it Margot Robbie’s Harley and her colorfully violent struggle with affection? Is it the emotional and heart-wrenching journey of Daniela Melchior’s Ratcatcher 2 and David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man? It‘s all of this and more. 

Black Widow

Black Widow’s standalone movie was way past overdue given that the last time we saw Natasha Romanoff in the MCU, she’d, well, met the cliffs of Vormir. Her first solo outing makes for an odd film, but that’s partly due to its difficult release during the pandemic and some unfortunate arguments about how it would finally reach screens. It’s not exactly a farewell to Black Widow, although it’s nice to see Natasha back in action. It’s also not much of an origin story for the Avenger, although it effortlessly introduces some great new characters to the MCU (it’s hard to think of more exciting casting for the franchise than Florence Pugh as Yelena Belova). In many ways, Black Widow is the MCU’s attempt at a James Bond film complete with cold war underpinnings, epic jail escapes, and a villain’s base in the clouds. It’s a distracting watch, but it leaves you feeling that its greatest contribution to the MCU is still to come.

The Protégé

Director Martin Campbell has excellent action credentials (including two of the best James Bond films), even if they’re not impeccable (looking at you, Green Lantern). His latest action film mines darker territory, with Maggie Q taking on the role of Anna, the world’s most skilled contract killer who embarks on a quest for vengeance when her mentor dies. Q is ably supported by Samuel L Jackson and Michael Keaton, names that should have drawn a bigger audience to some underrated action. Expect twists, turns, and suspense from this protégé and everyone who gets in her way.

Boss Level

Directed by the ruggedly reliable Joe Carnahan, Boss Level may just take the prize for the highest-concept actioner in 2021. It stars Frank Grillo as a former special forces agent caught in a time loop that replays his murder. As its name suggests, it pans out a lot like a video game. Naturally, Grillo’s character has to beat endless clocks to solve his death, uncovering covert operations, secret government projects, and a villainous Mel Gibson on the way. If you think you’ve seen everything sci-fi actioners can do with time loops, Boss Level would like to double it.